The Bright Side Of Shame - Part I
Living On Promise Can Paralyze Our Lives
My young client entered my office and sat down across from me, where he had sat on numerous occasions over the past few months. Brent (name changed) was a special client. Over the course of many years of counseling, I've worked with many people like him, and his presentation had a special familiarity with my own particular path in life. With him, he had the latest book of philosophy that he had been reading and, as he sat down, he struggled with the guitar and sheet music he had been working with during his brief stay in the waiting room. As I asked him about his week, he smiled a smile of accomplishment and he related that he had actually sent off three letters to college programs in his desired field of fine arts. He had also begun working on composing some new material and he had completed his goals-in-life collage that he had been given to do as homework between sessions.
“ . . . I cannot seem to get on with my life!”
“I actually got some things done over this past week," Brent related, "but I still can't figure out what seems to be making me so paralyzed that I cannot seem to get on with my life!”
It was a familiar theme – with only gradual improvement over the course of many weeks. Brent had considerable promise and was quite precocious in several areas of his life. He had been somewhat prodigious as a child, especially in the area of writing, physics, and the arts. Brent’s parents had high hopes for him a few years ago when he started college with art as a planned major. Shortly after entering college, however, he dropped out and returned to live with his parents with no clear-cut plan as to how he might continue his education, enter the workforce, or get on with his life. Far from diminishing in terms of his love of art, Brent was frustrated with himself and felt at a loss as to why he seemed not able to do the things he needed to move forward with his life. He had been referred to me by his parents initially, in hopes that he could break the impasse – to help him get back into school and pursue meaningful life goals that would lead to success. Both his parents and Brent continued to be baffled as to why he was not making meaningful progress with his life. Everything about his lifestyle suggested that he was simply hanging out, marking time, perfectly content to maintain his future on hold.
Among the mental health professions, there is a special term used to define circumstances under which the caregiver can become identified with the issues shared by the client. That term is referred to as counter-transference and special care must be taken to recognize such circumstances so the treatment of the client is not compromised. Counter-transference can either harm the client if it interferes with the treatment process, or if the caregiver resolves the conflict in his or her own psyche, the caregiver’s accomplishments in overcoming the conflicts can then provide insight to the client with his or her own impasse in life. In my own way, I was experiencing a struggle similar to Brent’s. How was I going to help Brent if I was not helping myself?
How was I going to help Brent if I was not helping myself?
As a client, Brent held my fascination and interest in a special way. He arrived at each session with a new book, often of significant academic challenge, and read it in the waiting room as though it were casual reading. We had a running joke about how he was out of college, but educating himself nonetheless – a process that would not be recognized in society at large – when he could simply just enroll in a university and read the books as part of his formal course of studies. He was not lazy and he certainly was not unmotivated. So, why did he persist with this wholesale procrastination of his life? I identified with Brent. The main difference between us, beyond the differences in our roles in the therapeutic relationship, was that I was beginning to have some understanding of the dynamics that lie behind the problem of why so many of us who have promise in our lives will then paralyze ourselves and keep ourselves from achieving our most cherished goals.
Although the client who sat before me was unaware, I had been going through to my own struggles with life paralysis. All my life, I had wanted to write. Even through an initial brief career in aviation, followed by years of college and graduate school, I continued in my life desire of wishing to write, both in the self-help and fictional areas. Now, here I was, at the zenith of my career (such as it was) with speckles of silver spreading from my beard into my hair, and at the time, I had yet to realize the publishing goals I had dreamed of throughout my life. What was wrong with me? What was wrong with Brent? And what was wrong with so many clients and associates and family and friends I had known throughout the years for whom no amount of the typical protocols of psychological intervention regarding such problems was helping?
In the beginning, I loved to write. I still love to write. I remember walking out to the beach during my high school years and sitting, writing poetry, prose and actually enjoying writing term papers. Over the course of my life, there has been an escalation of adventures and topics to write about, from my experiences as a helicopter ambulance pilot in Vietnam, to lessons learned throughout the years, and powerful insights gained over almost years of counseling practice. However, there were also many disappointments and life experiences that culminated in a sense of shame which has permeated many aspects of my life. Success as a writer would counteract those negative experiences. So why wasn’t I writing?
In a way that will be explained throughout our exploration of this topic, the hidden underlying dynamic in the paralysis behind my lack of writing was shame. The underlying dynamic behind Brent's paralysis in getting on with his life was shame. One of the rules regarding counter-transference in psychotherapy is that the caregiver must consider if he or she can adequately help the client in spite of personal counter-transference issues, or if the client should be referred to another counselor. While Brent had been making slow and somewhat erratic progress through use of insight and cognitive behavioral approaches, I had begun the session with the same thoughts that had prevailed in earlier sessions. A good counseling relationship had been established between Brent and myself, but was it adequate to the task of helping him break through his procrastination and get beyond this impasse in his life?
Unknown to Brent, at the time I had been thoroughly disgusted with myself. I had reached new heights of amazement at how skilled I was at being able to accomplish all the other tasks of my life, while leaving absolutely no time available for my very important endeavor of writing. Prior to the session, I had had my own personal session involving contemplation and self-introspection as to what could be the source behind my problem. Having researched the science of the issue, all my powers of meditation, contemplation, and prayer had been brought to muster on the problem.
They say we teach best what we most need to learn. Then, there is no limit to the inspiration that comes from higher power – especially in our efforts to help others. This session would move us to a new level. Though I was unaware of it, out of my own mouth I was about to hear major insights as to the source of the problem and the dynamics behind its solution.
New Insights to Shame and Self-paralysis
Brent sat before me, patiently, expecting wise words of counsel in response to yet another aspect of his paralyzed behavior that continued to baffle him about his impasse in life. Suddenly, years of training and experience in counseling came to bear. Years of personal growth work and observations of life came to bear. Mostly though, it was that higher order; that essential nature of the universe, that responds to our continued prayers, efforts, and vigilance and arises up in us like the muses of old when we become aware that our expression of the answers of life's great mysteries comes out of a Source that is bigger than we are. Brent listened, and I spoke – and listened.
I found myself explaining to Brent that the source behind his life paralysis was shame. Not just any type of shame, but the type of shame that comes out of our experiencing a sense of promise and destiny with regard to our potential future achievements. We often think of shame as an emotional experience that rises up in us when we fall short of expectations, when we believe we have no promise, or when we commit serious error in our lives. Often, a parent or another significant person in our life evokes a sense of shame by communicating that we are somehow inadequate or “not enough.” Those of us with this experience often develop poor expectations of self-accomplishment. Coming to believe that we will be a “loser” in life, we try little or not at all to succeed – such is the extent of our shame.
Brent’s case was different, though. Everybody held him high to the lights of promise.
Granville Angell © 05/2007
Granville Angell, EdS, LPC, NCC: local counselor and author of The God-Shaped Hole – A Story of Comfort for The Child in All of Us. Read his prior articles at www.transitions-counseling.com; contact him at TRANSITIONS: firstname.lastname@example.org, 704-276-1164.
To call TRANSITIONS/SoulMentors: (704) 276-1164